Striving for Research Excellence in Europe

‘Modern science is about teams and the EU is a great team needed to take on our 21st century challenges,’ notes Dr Mike Galsworthy, Programme Director of Scientists for EU, in his recent blog[1].

The contemporary notions of science, research and innovation have introduced new opportunities and challenges for the international research community. Societal changes, including the rise of globalisation and increased mobility, coupled with technological advances and economic and political developments, have had an impact on the research landscape worldwide.

How are key research players collaborating in their mission to produce innovative research, demonstrate impact and achieve international renown?

Here, we take an EU-focused look at the current research landscape, supported by Idox’s recent sponsorship and attendance at the European Association for Research Managers and Administrators’ (EARMA) flagship event – its Annual Conference – held this summer in Leiden, the Netherlands.

Striving for research excellence

Research and innovation (R&I) are high on the agenda in the EU’s vision for increased growth and competitiveness. This comprises three parts:

  • Striving to attract the best people in the business
  • Striving to secure the highest levels of research funding
  • Striving to establish and maintain a reputation of research excellence

In short, with constant competition for ideas, talents and funds, scaling up investment and productivity are featured heavily on R&I agendas.

Within European borders

The EU has shown dedication in supporting European research excellence; despite a reduced overall budget, it increased its science spend by 30% to develop its seven-year flagship R&I programme Horizon 2020. In addition, creations such as the European Research Council (ERC) – the first pan-European funding body for frontier research – aim to enhance the excellence of European research, having been granted a total budget allocation of € 13.1 billion for the period 2014-2020. Previously published EU figures also demonstrate that Europe contributes to almost a third of the world’s science and technology production.

However, economic insecurity and fiscal pressures in a number of Member States represent increasing burdens for research-focused institutions, required to spend their (often depleted) budgets more wisely and demonstrate the best possible return on investment. In difficult financial times, it is challenging to support research excellence on the premise of ‘less is more’.

Further, the disparity between EU Member States has been critiqued for hindering collaborative research efforts and producing an unbalanced European research community. The EU’s focus on ‘Teaming’ and ‘Twinning’ play an important role in the attempt to unlock Europe’s R&I potential. Teaming (supporting new collaborations, networks and market opportunities) and Twinning (networking within institutions e.g. staff exchanges and expert advice) represent actions introduced under Horizon 2020 in order to widen participation, drive high-quality research and encourage input from low-research performing Member States. According to the European Commission, the European Research Area (ERA) is aiming ‘to function in a more streamlined and homogeneous way, allowing the individual strengths of each Member State to be optimised’.

Another bid to enhance European research performance and increase international visibility can be seen in the working example of the EU-LIFE initiative. As an alliance of 13 top research centres in life sciences, it draws upon the strengths and expertise of each in order to ‘support and strengthen European research excellence’. This consortium has amassed over 7,000 scientists and support personnel, over 550 Group Leaders, close to 3,000 publications, over 106 ERC Grants and 21 coordinated EU-projects for the life sciences field (figures provided from the end of 2013), demonstrating that the ability to share knowledge and influence European policy collectively is worthwhile.

International research scope

A key theme of the EARMA conference was globalisation. The multi-cultural element of research was emphasised, encouraging a fusion of research cultures and backgrounds without compromising, complicating or diluting research goals. An EARMA conference session from Susi Poli of the University of Bologna noted that in this context, ‘cultural diversity is pictured as a strength’.

Outwith EU borders, global research competition is increasing, with America and developed Asian economies such as China and South Korea investing more and more heavily in R&I and, in turn, attracting some of the best researchers in the world. A conference session titled Funding for EU S&T collaboration with Asia and beyond acknowledged that the Asian region ‘is not just growing at a fast rate economically, it also invests heavily in R&I. As a consequence, scientific paper output and numbers of patents are increasing. European science and industry international collaboration (INCO) with Asia is becoming a key factor in competitiveness.’

Similarly, sessions including Negotiation with US Institutions and Understanding US research funding discussed the importance of Trans-Atlantic research collaborations for European research momentum.

Reviewing the lessons learned from Horizon 2020 so far, John Stringer of Berkley Associates and Agnes Szeberenyi of CERN noted that the initiative ‘has started a new game with new rules’. The EU has opened H2020 up to participants from all over the world – a bold yet positive move – clearly supporting cooperation with international counterparts. Whilst such funding is not always reciprocated in other countries, EARMA speakers placed an emphasis on exploring funding mechanisms and opportunities beyond EU borders, something echoed in Idox’s recent whitepaper, covering ways of identifying and maximising on alternative sources of international research funding and support in the midst of fierce competition for EU funding.

So, what actions can individual institutions take to strive for individual excellence?

Case study: The University of Northampton

As well as exhibiting at the 2015 EARMA conference as Gold Sponsors, Idox presented the Research Funding Opportunities: Identification, Dissemination and Academic Engagement workshop.

Led by guest speaker Karen Lewis of The University of Northampton, a previous winner of The Times Higher Education Supplement’s Outstanding Research Management Team of the Year, the workshop provided research managers and administrators with the opportunity to share best practice tips and advice on the process of identifying research funding. Karen outlined Northampton’s approach as a basis for discussion, while inviting participant experience. During the interactive part of the workshop, delegates were asked to share best practice on the following three topics:

  • Proactively identifying funding
    • Forge good working relationships between staff in the research office and academics
    • Identify and maintain personalised contact with key contacts e.g. face-to-face and telephone
    • Track key websites and publications e.g. participant and research portals and national research councils
    • Hold interactive meetings involving key stakeholders
    • Scan research blogs to identify what others may be applying for
    • Sign-up for internet/newsletter subscriptions
  • Disseminating information to the right people, and making sure it’s read
    • Determine the sender and ensure all communications are targeted
    • Get management buy-in (Heads of departments/divisions)
    • Set up a dedicated H2020 working group
    • Get feedback at every opportunity
    • Always include a ‘human element’
  • Engaging with a diverse research population
    • Utilise multiple communication channels and methods including workshops, meetings and internal websites
    • Be mindful of ‘information overflow’
    • Make it personalised (meetings, phone calls)
    • Nurture a culture of space and freedom where colleagues are encouraged to talk to one another

As a UK HEI, Northampton has had to look beyond some of the more traditional sources of research funding in order to generate money to support academic research. Karen touched on the University’s success in establishing effective research performance while exploring how GRANTfinder (including the research module RESEARCHconnect and the policy service POLICYfinder) has been integrated into research strategies within the university. An accompanying video is available to view: GRANTfinder 4 Education and the University of Northampton.

The key message from the workshop? At a time when demonstrating impact and delivering tangible outcomes are becoming increasingly essential in research management, ensuring professional, efficient and effective dissemination and engagement is key.

Conclusion

Looking towards a future of sustainable research funding mechanisms, a central theme to emerge from EARMA and Idox’s 30-year experience of the funding world is the need to reach beyond the funding ‘comfort zone’.

Understanding the roadmaps for international cooperation and the mechanisms available for creating constructive R&I environments is central to the future of EU research excellence.

Working on the premise that ‘excellent research requires excellent support’, EARMA has taken a leading role in building a productive EU research ecosystem, facilitating constant dialogue between EU and international research counterparts. Continuing to maximise engagement and play an active role in EU research policy development, EARMA will remain a key part of supporting the research lifecycle at home and abroad in the midst of donor fatigue, fiscal pressures and other macro-environmental factors.

Sharper awareness, good decision-making, effective collaborative working and efficient dissemination will secure Europe’s position as a continent committed to research and willing to explore the limitless possibilities it affords.

By Chelsea Nattriss, Idox


Notes:

[1] http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2015/06/22/eu-worlds-largest-scientific-engine-rising

If you would like to receive a copy of Idox’s full workshop presentation and feedback report on research identification, dissemination and engagement strategies, please email grants.marketing@idoxgroup.com.

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